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CAPSULE: MELANCHOLIA (2011)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, , Alexander Skarsgård, ,

PLOT: A young woman grapples with serious depression on her wedding day, causing rifts i nher already-tempestuous family relationships. Meanwhile, a planet known as Melancholia is making its way towards Earth.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Von Trier’s rumination on the end of the world is for the most part surprisingly understated, incorporating surrealistic imagery here and there but primarily relegating itself to a realistic study of a family in crisis with a science-fiction background.

COMMENTS: Opening with breathtaking slow-motion shots of a dreamlike apocalypse set to a bombastic Wagner score, Melancholia begins with the promise of something literally earth-shattering. Its ambition and scope seem far-reaching and all-encompassing, much like Malick’s confused 2011 offering The Tree of Life. Shifting to close-quarters shaky cam as the focus moves to new bride Justine’s wedding party, Melancholia becomes an investigation of her debilitating depression and how most of her wealthy, bitter family is unsympathetic. The second half keeps the setting of an isolated mansion inn, but puts the spotlight on sister Claire, whose extreme anxiety is increased by the foreboding presence of the incoming planet.

As the promise of a visually and thematically grandiose event lingers over the film’s proceedings, von Trier endeavors to first fully establish his characters and their relationships. We spend a lot of time with these people, seeing their connections and lack thereof, slowly understanding their underlying flaws and neuroses. The looming threat of complete world destruction is barely acknowledged during the first half as the script is absorbed in Justine’s efforts to hide her disease and Claire’s concern for keeping up appearances. It’s meandering and slow-moving, but the strong lead performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg—along with a charismatic supporting turn from Sutherland—are engaging enough to keep things interesting until the apocalypse strikes.

Because we spend so much time with these characters beforehand, their plight at the end is felt all the more acutely. Seeing how these women lived—raised in wealth but suffering internally (all very Salinger-esque)—is such an intimate experience that it’s hard to not feel involved personally. The planet Melancholia itself is truly an awesome sight, eerie and intimidating, seeming to affect the actors internally and causing a few mouths to open in the audience.  Of course, the ear-shattering Wagner orchestration helps build the intensity.

Weird movie fans will surely appreciate the gorgeous surrealistic imagery peppered throughout, but at its heart Melancholia is a serious examination of mental illness and family ties in the shadow of a cataclysmic event.

G. Smalley adds: Melancholia is an intensely metaphorical movie, but it is essentially a more conventional, dramatic reworking of the theme of clinical depression vonTrier explored in the weirder, more outrageous Antichrist.  The two movies contain common themes and a similar look (I was surprised to discover that they had different cinematographers), but they are so different in their approach that I’m not sure liking one will predict how you’ll react to the other.  In fact, I suspect that many of the people now singing the praises of Melancholia were the ones complaining the loudest at Antichrist and von Trier’s descent into “torture porn.”  Melancholia is strong throughout, but I found the opening the most astounding part.  It’s a six-minute super slow motion surrealistic montage that manages to enrapture while featuring characters and events about whom we know nothing yet.  It opens with a shot of a devastated-looking Kirsten Dunst with dead birds falling in the background, and includes what may be my favorite image of the year: Dunst trudging through a forest glade in her white wedding gown, dragging behind her a train of huge vines tied to her ankles and waist.  The slow motion photography is technically amazing; sometimes you believe you’re looking at a still photograph until you see a foot lift, and at other times it seems figures in the foreground and background are moving at different rates.  It’s thrilling (to me, at least) to see a director who once advocated stripping film down to its basics (the short-lived “Dogme 95” movement) now embracing the full operatic range of cinematic tools.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In many ways this bizarre, nihilistic meditation is a dreary, redundant, pretentious bore… On the other hand, the magnificent, ethereal visuals/special effects are haunting, particularly the opening collage which compresses the entire story.”– Susan Granger, SSG Syndicate

78. ZARDOZ (1974)

“When I see the film now, I’m astonished at my hubris in making this extraordinary farrago.”–John Boorman in his 2001 director’s commentary for Zardoz

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DIRECTED BY: John Boorman

FEATURING: Sean Connery, , John Alderton, Sara Kestleman, Niall Buggy

PLOT: Zed is an Enforcer, a warrior and slaver who pillages the countryside and takes commands from Zardoz, a floating stone head, in a distant barbaric future.  One day Zed sneaks into the head and is carried away with it to Vortex 4, a land filled with technologically advanced people who never seem to age.  Zed is a curiosity to them and becomes both a slave and an object of scientific study, but his presence disrupts their society in profound ways.

Still from Zardoz (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Zardoz was John Boorman’s first film after being nominated for an Oscar for Deliverance.  Boorman had been trying to get an adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” off the ground, but the project fell through.
  • This was Sean Connery’s second role after completing his run as James Bond with Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 (although he would return to the role for a one off in 1983’s Never Say Never Again).
  • Burt Reynolds was originally slated to play Zed but fell ill.
  • According to Boorman the film’s budget was one million dollars, $200,000 of which went to Connery’s salary.
  • Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth also lensed 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many other films.
  • Boorman later co-wrote a novelization of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Try as he might to fill his film with unforgettable visions of giant floating stone heads vomiting firearms and of humanity’s entire cultural heritage projected onto the half-nude bodies of immortal hippies, the one image that adorns almost every review of Boorman’s Zardoz is a simple one: Sean Connery standing in the desert, pistol in hand, ponytail insouciantly thrown over one shoulder, dressed in thigh high leather boots and a red diaper with matching suspenders.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:   This sci-fi spectacle starts with serious ideas and weighty themes,


Original trailer for Zardoz

but gets weighed down under an avalanche of self-indulgent dialogue, a confused script, low-budget psychedelics, and consistently bizarre directorial choices.  Fill a talented young director’s head full of anticipation of adapting Tolkien, then pull that opportunity out from under him but instead give him Sean Connery and carte blanche to make whatever film he wants, and the result, apparently, is Zardoz.  (Oh, and LSD might have had something to do with it, too).

COMMENTSZardoz is introduced by a floating head weaving through a void, slowly Continue reading 78. ZARDOZ (1974)

CAPSULE: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Romanek

FEATURING: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley,

PLOT: Kathy,Tommy and Ruth grow up at the pleasant but isolated Hallisham Academy in a

Still from Never Let Me Go (2010)

fictional Britain that never was; they fall in and out of love with each other and grow up to discover that the purpose of their lives has already been set for them.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, though the mix of genres is unprecedented.  The premise is speculative—it would be science fiction had it been set in the future instead of an alternate past—but the execution is conventional, laid down with a Merchant-Ivory-ish gravitas.

COMMENTS: I’ll respect convention and won’t give away the “spoiler” for Never Let Me Go, despite the facts that 1). the trailer reveals it to the observant viewer who has seen a couple of key B-movies from which the premise is derived, and 2). the mystery surrounding the children of Hallisham Academy is divulged about twenty minutes into the film. Point 2) is key, because this movie works not by slowly revealing twists and secrets, but by keeping us watching in horror at the ironic inevitability of the children’s unfolding fate. Locked away from the outside world in the comfortable but disquietingly totalitarian Academy, the kids make up horrible stories about what happens to disobedient children who leave the grounds (dismemberment and starvation); their myths about their own fates persist into adulthood, but the audience always understands that they are doomed even as they cling to desperate hopes.  One of the biggest problems with the film is that it lacks background detail; viewing things entirely from the perspective of the trapped children, we never get enough of a sense of the larger society and its skewed politics and ethics, and are left to raise a lot of issues for ourselves. Too many questions about this Brave Alternate World are left unanswered (primarily, why our protagonists go so gently into that good night, hardly struggling against their fate). The love story is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any the less emotionally affecting, thanks to some great performances. Carey Mulligan, a rising star, carries the film with an often heartbreaking performance: smarter and less prone to illusion than her companions, the despair starts to register in her eyes just a few moments before it reaches Garfield or Knightley’s.  She also cries on cue, including a doozy that rolls down her face and ends up hanging off her chin for a second or two.  Garfield, currently being groomed to be the next Spider-Man, is acceptable as the awkward and occasionally unbalanced male love interest, and Knightley is pro as the seethingly jealous and gently vindictive third point of the love triangle. Kudos go out to the casting director for signing a trio of child actors that are not only fine thespians, but are also almost perfect genetic models for their grown-up counterparts. The cinematography is pleasing, sometimes poetic, with lonely fields and deserted beaches lit by soft golden glows. Despite its effective mood of melancholy, however, the film never really takes off. Director Romanek seems self-conscious in adapting the famed literary property. He’s so careful to be respectful, restrained and tastefully subtle so that the film will come off as “serious” and “important” that the tale fails to live and breathe.  (Having the lead character deliver the obvious moral in a closing monologue—just in case viewers missed the script’s Oscar-caliber metaphors—was a bad decision).  The end result is a story that sends the viewer out mildly depressed, rather than existentially shattered. Despite not quite achieving its full potential, Never Let Me Go still a good choice for the arthouse patron jonesing for a flick with Brit accents, teardrops, and no car chases.

The film was adapted, with the author’s blessing and oversight, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel.  Ishiguro’s main weird movie connection is that he wrote the original screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World, although director Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles significantly surrealized the British writer’s scenario.  Director Mark Romanek’s previous feature was One Hour Photo (2002), an offbeat psychological thriller that cast Robin Williams way against type as a creepy, delusional photo developer.  His first, hard to find feature Static (1985), about a worker in a crucifix factory who thinks he has found a way to take pictures of Heaven, is reputedly quite weird (thanks to L. Robb Hubbard for reminding us of that last point).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an alternate universe that exudes some of the creepy calm of Wolf Rilla’s great English science-fiction flick Village of the Damned, but also the gloomy romanticism of Keats and Shelley.”–Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)